It’s so unusual to find a 464-page art history book written by a lone individual that out of curiosity I cast about for similar efforts from recent decades, finding only Irving Sandler’s The Triumph of American Painting and H.H. Arnason’s History of Modern Art. While not quite the latter, Sculpture Today probably exceeds the former in breadth and ambition and shares with both the cohesion offered by a single voice and the idiosyncratic viewpoint of a story told by one life, one way. Because it’s an individual conclusion, this large volume by British curator Judith Collins is a robust read with plenty to fight and argue about, to reflect upon, and ultimately from which to learn.
Collins tells a familiar story: the sequence of Modernist thought happened mostly in terms of flat art: certainly if Modernism was not entirely limited to these forms, the supporting critical theory is easily described as such. With few exceptions—Duchamp’s work of 1913 and the entire Bauhaus come to mind—Collins’s thesis is correct that the long primacy of painting, the manifestation of Modernism’s reductive sequence, gave way to the primacy of sculpture in the ’60s. Sculpture’s subsequent domination of contemporary art has continued for 40 years. I chuckled at her quotation from a bewildered Rosalind Krauss in a ’70s-era October magazine that some “rather surprising things have come to be called sculpture.” Yes, indeed, the Modernist leash slipped off and the pack galloped away in all directions, and in the chase Collins truly knows her subject.